Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why Vancouver needs a new art gallery

The Vancouver Art Gallery needs a new home. The renovated courthouse building on Robson Square has served the gallery and the community well for nearly thirty years, but the continued growth and future of this organization depend on constructing a new building on a new site.
Today, Vancouver enjoys an international reputation as a leading centre for contemporary art. The city is home to Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham and many other prominent artists who exhibit their work in major galleries and museums internationally. Vancouver has earned a place on the world stage for the visual arts. When visitors come here, they should always be able to see the work of Vancouver's internationally renowned artists and the wealth of British Columbia's artistic heritage. The Vancouver Art Gallery's permanent exhibition space is 10 times smaller than the average North American museum and we are able to show only three per cent of our collection at any given time.
Our visitors are often disappointed they cannot see more of the gallery's extensive holdings of British Columbia art, including the most significant public collection of Emily Carr.
In recent years, the collection has grown from 6,000 to more than 10,000 artworks and the vaults beneath the Georgia Street plaza are full to overflowing. In fact, the gallery now pays for costly, climate controlled off-site storage to accommodate our ever-increasing collection.
The gallery's educational and public programs are also running at capacity. We serve 30,000 schoolchildren annually, but waiting lists are long and we cannot increase this program due to lack of space. As an educational institution committed to lifelong learning, we have worked hard to create a dynamic mix of programs that serve a wide spectrum of visitors -- from the novice to the informed art enthusiast. But we could do so much more with dedicated learning, gathering and "hands-on" education spaces.
Our decision to secure the site on Georgia Street just east of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre has been six years in the making, involving both the city of Vancouver and the provincial government.
We began with an extensive master plan study which looked at expansion of our current site. But, at the end of the day, altering our heritage-designated building with extensive underground construction turned out to be extremely problematic and significantly more expensive than constructing a new purpose-built gallery.
We then focused on finding a new site, and after a thorough investigation of several possible locations, the gallery's board unanimously endorsed our relocation to the block on which the Greyhound bus station was once situated.
The Vancouver Art Gallery is a success story. We have organized ground-breaking exhibitions presenting the work of both established and emerging B.C. artists, as well as leading contemporary artists from around the world. In partnership with leading international museums, we have presented art by some of the greatest masters -- including Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, Monet, Degas and Dali -- to our audiences. In fact, the gallery broke all previous records with 450,000 visitors in 2007, confirming our role as a major attraction and tourist destination. Our membership is now the highest in our history at 48,000, compared to 5,000 in 2001, which speaks volumes to the importance British Columbians place on the visual arts. Our donor community has also responded, with the number of donors increasing by more than 200 per cent in the past ten years.
Three decades ago, a determined group of community supporters worked tirelessly to move the gallery from a small building on West Georgia to the courthouse. The time has come once again for the Vancouver Art Gallery to find a new home where we can continue to grow and serve the community for the next 50 years. Building a new gallery on the city-owned site at 150 Dunsmuir presents an exciting solution, allowing the gallery to double in size while creating an important architectural focal point for Vancouver. At the same time, our move would offer an exciting opportunity for the City to envision a new purpose for this much treasured heritage building.
We have a tremendous opportunity to create an important legacy, one that will be a source of great pride for all of Vancouver and British Columbia, while presenting the best of our artistic past, present and future for all the world to see.
Kathleen Bartels is the director of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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